Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Getting around in style

For many, many years my Vegas vacations were sans a rental car. It didn't seem that important to me to drive around town when there were numerous mass transit options.

I did rent a car for a couple days during a January 2007 trip. I had a job interview in Henderson and it made more sense to rent a car than take a cab back and forth. And I was able to use the rental car to explore Red Rock Canyon for the first time.

I'm cheap. I like to save a little cash if I can. But I have my limits.

I started staying off the strip in 2009. I stayed at a timeshare property west of The Orleans, and I did so without the benefit of a rental car. I used shuttles from the timeshare property to The Orleans and city buses across Tropicana to access the strip and Pinball Hall of Fame. It worked for me at the time.

It was my Halloween 2011 trip that changed my mindset about renting a car in Vegas. I wanted to visit area haunted attractions, and the only way to do so reasonably was to rent a car. So I did so, and now the rental car is a necessity for my trips.

I have typically rented my car through Costco. I have a membership, and the rates Costco offers have been better than anything else I could find, no matter how many discount codes I used by booking through an agency's website directly, or how many searches I did through the many booking websites out there.

Costco has partnerships with just four agencies, but it turns out that one of them has been outstanding to deal with.

I used Budget a few times, but didn't love the fact that I had to wait in line and deal with an agent. (I've been told you can bypass the agents if you do some fancy online confirmation prior to your departure.) I also didn't like the fact I got stuck with whatever car they chose for me. I didn't get the choice of a Toyota or a Chrysler, and I didn't get to pick the color. The color shouldn't matter, but I hated getting stuck with a white vehicle.

The first time I rented with Alamo, however, my life changed again. I was able to check in via a kiosk, and didn't have to deal with the hassle of a clerk trying to sell me additional insurance. And upon completing my paperwork at the kiosk I was able to chose any of the available vehicles in my class. Having a choice of vehicles, and colors, is a nice bonus.

And in my experience, Alamo is laid back when it comes to the damage report you have to file when you drive off the lot. It's less of a hassle.

For my 2015 trips to Vegas, however, the Costco rates haven't been so hot. I did use Alamo in May, and rented a mini van at a higher rate than I'm use to paying, as that was the most economical option, even with the reduced gas mileage of the vehicle.

Last week, however, I did something quite different. I ended up using a new company. I rented a car from Sixt, and it worked out well for me.

Sixt is a small company across the street from the main rental car facility. You have to either haul your luggage down the road to their offices or wait for their shuttle van to come by and pick you up. From my experiences, they were quite efficient on both ends of my rental. This extra step was not an inconvenience.

I have been a longtime Costco customer, but for the past 10 months I've also had a Sam's Club membership. I don't plan on being a member of both long term, but I joined Sam's Club because of a deal last December that basically made my first year free. Like Costco, Sam's Club has car rental deals available to its members. It has different deals, and a different protocol for securing them, but with Costco failing to offer me any vehicle for less than $200 during my five-day visit to Vegas, it was hard to pass up renting a full-size vehicle from Sixt for $164.

That full-size vehicle was going to be a Nissan, but the clerk at Sixt offered us a $15/day upgrade. Instead of a Nissan sedan, we could get a BMW convertible. I was reluctant to say yes immediately, but my girlfriend encouraged me to splurge, so I agreed to it. (I do all the driving in Vegas, all she cares is that she feels safe alongside me.) In hindsight I can't believe I hesitated to say yes. When am I ever going to drive a BMW convertible again?

Sixt is a small company, so there isn't a large inventory of vehicles on site. I didn't get to chose the vehicle, but I didn't care, even after seeing the BMW was white. I felt like a high roller, and it was a much more enjoyable vehicle to drive than the 2003 Toyota Camry I drive in Minnesota. My car is fine, but it's no BMW.

So, which would I choose the next time I'm in Vegas, all things being equal? I'd still go with Alamo.

Sixt has a small staff, and when we picked up the BMW, it was quiet. That was a Sunday evening. When dropping off the car, however, we had to wait more than 10 minutes to process the return. That's not a deal breaker, but it's annoying. Alamo processes many car returns each day, and they have it down to a science. It takes about a minute to complete the process.

That's not enough of a reason to avoid Sixt. What scares me about the company is that it doesn't appear it manages its inventory properly.

I can't say for certain, but it appeared that a few people were waiting for their rental vehicle. They clearly weren't waiting for the shuttle back to the airport. And we heard one couple being told that their rental vehicle wasn't due for another hour. Perhaps these folks were there to rent their vehicle early, and therefore getting burned because of it. But I got the sense that on a Friday afternoon the renters were showing up and the vehicles they intended to rent weren't ready to be picked up. That's a proposition I'd rather not face, all things being equal.

My cheap BMW upgrade and minimal hassle with Sixt obviously won't prevent me from renting from the company again. I had a good experience, but assuming I'm not getting a cheap upgrade to a BMW the next time I walk through their door, (I was told that the normal rate to rent the BMW was $80/day – that seems a bit high,) I'd rather go with the efficient, reliable Alamo service I've come to know and love.

But if you should happen to find that Sixt is your best bet, you might find your experience is as satisfying as mine was.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Goodbye to 100-degree heat

I just finished a five-day stint in Las Vegas. Here are some highlights:

• Sunny and hot weather all week long!
• Driving around Vegas with the top down.
• Another trip on the High Roller.
• A road trip to Laughlin. No I'm not making that up.
• Local beer.
• Local tiki room.
• The match play gods did not like me.
• The "Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em" gods liked me.

Some of these highlights will be covered in greater detail in the days to come. Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

You can hardly contain yourself

It took me a year-and-a-half to get there, but in May I finally got a look at the Downtown Container Park.

I don't have anything brilliant to say about it. I spent a couple of hours there, and I spent very little during my visit. 

In a nutshell: It's a unique retail and restaurant concept that is well done, and will likely inspire imitations, if it's not already. (Is the Vegas version a replication of the concept?)

DCP is impressive. They took metal containers, the type that are used to ship goods around the world, and fashioned them into a three-level mall. There are plenty of stairways, and an elevator, to help you reach each level. There are a a variety of specialty retailers, as well as several restaurants. There's a playground in the middle of it, and a stage at the far end where they provide entertainment during the evening. 

It's simple, it's unnecessary and it's worth a visit. I wouldn't say that you should add it to your Vegas bucket list, but it's worth seeing if you're downtown.

The shops aren't targeted for the tourist crowd. Sure, plenty of tourists will find their way to DCP, but it's not the place to go for Las Vegas ashtrays and T-shirts. The small shops squeezed into the stacked, adjoining metal containers feature a wide array of products, from socks to jewelry. There are products that would be easy to take home in your suitcase or carry-on bag, but there are things that would pose a challenge to squeeze into said bags when it's time to head to the airport. Keep that in mind.

My favorite shop was Kappa Toys. Sure, they're selling commercial products, stuff that can be found elsewhere, but they cram a lot into that store, offer plenty of things you won't find at your local Target store and seem to have something for everyone, from the youngsters to the young at heart. 

There are a variety of restaurants, and one or two places that only serve beverages, if I recall correctly. I didn't sample any of the food, so I can't say what you should or shouldn't try, but I've read more than one review of DCP and it sounds like there are some good eats to be had. 

I sense that in the summer you had better be careful about what you touch as you walk around. Metal in the desert, that has got to get hot. 

And I wonder how well the shops on the third level do. It's a lot of fun exploring the shops and following the nifty walkways they've created to connect all the shops, but I imagine a lot of people don't end up seeing every shop, and the third level stores don't have the benefit of people walking by like the shops on the ground floor do. 

However they work it out, there wasn't an empty space to be found in May, and I think the concept was designed to offer an affordable way for would-be Trumps to launch their global empire. 

DCP is on Fremont Street, a block past El Cortez as you make your way east of the canopy.

It's worth a visit if you're downtown, especially before the evening shenanigans begin under the canopy. 

I know I'll be back.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

It's better to be lucky than good

During my May trip to Vegas I didn't have very good luck. I didn't even gamble during my first day in town. My Sunday night began with an appearance at the Riviera, and during the time my girlfriend and I were there, we had drinks at the bar. The tables were full for the final night at the Riv, and it looked like a fun atmosphere, but my girlfriend doesn't play cards, so I figured I'd spend an hour playing blackjack on Monday morning.

Of course I arrived on Monday morning to find out the tables were already closed. And I'm not much of a slot machine or video poker player, so I never gambled a final $20 at the Riv.

Four nights of our trip were spent at the Orleans, and the final two nights were downtown at Downtown Grand. I had lousy luck at the Orleans. Really lousy. Luck was not on my side.

I had a few match plays for the Orleans, and I had one left on Thursday morning before we relocated to downtown. My luck had been terrible, so I decided that my luck couldn't be worse by using a match play at the roulette table. And instead of picking red or black, I made my girlfriend pick the color.

The match play was for $10, so I put it and $10 down on the color my girlfriend chose. I won $20 just before I walked out the door of the Orleans. I'm a low roller, so winning $20 on my way out of the casino was a nice consolation prize. I was down about $250 at that point. That's an hour's worth of gambling for some. For me it represents a couple of nights of non-winning blackjack.

I had match plays for downtown, some from the Las Vegas Advisor coupon book. Downtown Grand also gave us match plays since we were hotel guests, so I had a few to play there. I had a pair of $25 match plays and one $10. I didn't play them all at one time, but my girlfriend went three-for-three with them. Three correct calls with match plays netted me $120.

I also cashed in a $25 match play coupon at The D. And sure enough, my girlfriend picked the right color again. (Every bet was red or black. We never picked odd/even or 1-18/19-36.) That was another $50 in my pocket.

Now here's another example of how not chronicling everything immediately after my trip turns out to burn me. I'm not sure where I played the final $10 match play. It had to be downtown, but I can't figure out where. Perhaps I had two $10 match plays for Downtown Grand.

What I do know: I played six match plays on roulette, put up $105 for the bets and won all six of them, netting $210 in the process. According to one online source I found, the odds of betting correctly on six such bets is 74.4 to 1. There's a 1.33 percent chance you'll pick six in a row correctly.

And since we had multiple match plays at Downtown Grand, my girlfriend played a $10 match play with her own money. And of course she lost.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Dinner and belly dancing with "Jasmine"

My girlfriend wanted to treat us to a special dinner during our May trip to Vegas, and we decided Thursday night would be the night to dine at Marrakech.

We don't do many fancy dinners during our trips to Vegas. Our nice dinner use to be at The Flame inside El Cortez, and that's because I always had a discount coupon for it. Now that The Flame is gone, we don't have a go-to restaurant, and in searching for interesting places that weren't overhyped celebrity chef restaurants on the strip, my girlfriend found Marrakech.

I vaguely knew of this place. Years ago I knew a woman who had worked there, as a belly dancer. I didn't know where the place was, or much else about it, and never in my wildest dreams did I expect I'd wind up dining there. Perhaps there's more than one Mediterranean restaurant featuring belly dancers in the Vegas area, but I doubt it. 

Marrakech is quite an experience. It's located in a strip mall north of Flamingo on Paradise Road. It's very unassuming from the outside. 

But once you step inside reminders of Sin City are nowhere to be found. It seems rather dark inside, and the dining room area is highly decorated. The dining room is designed to look like the inside of a Moroccan tent, according to the Marrakech website, and I'd say they nailed it. Candles illuminate the dining area, and although it seems rather dark when you first enter, your eyes will eventually adjust to it. 

There's no lunch menu at Marrakech, it's dinner only, and it's a prixe fixe menu. Sure, you can substitute chicken for beef along the way, and they offer vegetarian options, but you eat what they make for you, and you will like it! 

It's a $50 dinner and you have little choice in the matter. If you're a red meat and potato gal, you probably shouldn't dine at Marrakech. But if you enjoy the Mediterranean flavor, you'll love Marrakech.

The dinner includes a sauteed shrimp appetizer that was delicious, a lentil and rice soup that was tasty and a vegetable and dip tray that I enjoyed, and I'm not the biggest fan of raw vegetables. Dipping sauces, be it ranch dressing or hummus – the latter being part of the Marrakech offering – go a long way toward my enjoyment of the uncooked vegetable. 

We were also served a beef kabob and the "royal Moroccan couscous platter with djaj (chicken)." Both were outstanding. Many of the offerings are eaten with your hands. I don't recall if they gave us a spoon for the soup, but I do recall they gave us forks to eat our royal chicken platter.

By the time you've been served the five courses, and eaten your share of bread, you've had a healthy meal. They wrap it all up with a Moroccan pastry stuffed with bananas, nuts and chocolate. 

We skipped the pricey beer, wine and cocktail offerings, but that didn't diminish the experience. The service staff was prompt at filling our water glasses and great all around. 

We dined early in the evening, and the place was far from full. We were seated next to a trio, and could see one other group from our semi-private corner. There might have been another group seated in an area we couldn't see, but that was about it during our visit. And as promised, the restaurant featured a belly dancer that would perform intermittently throughout the evening, sometimes near our table.

The first time she came to our area she beckoned one of us to get up and dance with her. My girlfriend was quick to be a stick in the mud, so I deemed it necessary to get up and be a good sport. Although it's a bit dark in the dining room, my girlfriend managed to get a decent picture of me attempting to mimic the dance moves of the belly dancer. And she posted it on her Facebook page. Her sister showed the picture to her 5-year-old niece who seemed to think I was belly dancing with the Disney princess "Jasmine." 

Marrakech has been around since 1979, according to its website, and they promise a feast for your senses. While it's not a cheap date night dinner, it's a great experience, and well done within the confines of a Paradise Road strip mall. I won't be making a return visit later this month, but I have no doubt I'll be back some day. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Prime rib and cheap sneakers

As I noted once upon a time, summer is short in Minnesota. It's going to be hot and steamy the next few days, but by Labor Day we might be wearing layers of clothing for the remainder of the year.

I haven't taken a lot of time to write this summer, and I have a new Vegas trip on the horizon, and it's less than a month away. So in celebration I should probably finish chronicling my memories from my trip in May.

My May trip was for the closing of the Riviera. From my arrival on Sunday night through the wee hours of Monday night, I was a busy guy. By Tuesday it was time to relax. I spent that afternoon at the Orleans pool and had dinner that night at The Prime Rib Loft.

 I go out of my way for cheap prime rib when I'm in Vegas, and I decided it was time to try a cut above the cafe specials I typically enjoy.

I'm not a food critic, so I can't tell you how succulent the meat was, or how fluffy and delicious the baked potato was. My girlfriend and I both had simple prime rib dinners. I didn't try to eat my weight in prime rib, but there are some hefty cuts available. Our bill was less than $50 for two plates with sides, whatever that entailed. I don't remember if we had drinks of any kind with our meal, but I tend not to wash down my food with beer, wine or spirits. Or soda for that matter.

We were both satisfied with the quality of the meal and the price. We both noted that the cuts of prime rib we received were finer than what you get for $9.99 at a cafe, as they should be, and that the service was top notch. I suspect we'll be going back for dinner later this month.

When I rent a car and spend several days in Vegas I like to take a road trip. During this trip we didn't want to spend a day on the road, so we opted instead to take an evening trip south to the California border.

I made my first visit to Primm, Nev., on May 6, and it was quite an experience.

Never having driven south, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I'd be out in the middle of nowhere, but I had no idea how surreal the experience would be.

Holy crap, Primm is creepy on a weeknight in May.

The area looks cool when you see pictures of it. And it seems like a fun place to stay if you want a cheap casino getaway without all the hustle and bustle of Vegas.

We made the outlet mall our priority. I can imagine the mall does quite well on weekends as people travel back and forth between Vegas and southern California. On a Wednesday night it's almost depressing.

There are plenty of stores, several kiosks and a food court. I can imagine it being busy during the holiday shopping season. It strikes me as a place that people would happily shop at. But on a Wednesday evening, most store employees looked bored out of their gourd. I felt sorry for them.

The mall is attached to the Primm Valley Resort and Casino. It looked like a nice place, although it was a bit quiet. I was there during dinner time, so I didn't expect it to have the vibrancy of Caesar's on a Saturday night, but it was a little too empty for my liking. Little did I know.

My girlfriend found some deals on clothing she was happy with, so with her retail purchases in hand, we set out to find dinner. We bypassed any dining options at the outlet mall and casino and looked next door, at Buffalo Bill's.

Bill's looks like a lot of fun. They have a roller coaster outside the casino, and a couple of other rides somewhere on their grounds, I believe. It's a colorful, decorative building, and inside they play up the old west theme quite a bit. It's old school Vegas, a casino with a distinct theme, and dedication to it.

And it was as dead as a doornail.

I think there were a handful of people gambling in the casino, and it's not a small casino.

There was a small food court area, and one of the restaurants within it was open. It looked like their buffet was open for dinner, too, although I don't know why.

We opted not to eat at Bill's, and wound up eating at The Mad Greek Cafe, near a fast food option or two outside of Primm Valley Casino. The joint touts how great it is, how beloved it is, and it's fine, but it's not special, it's not a bargain and I wouldn't make a point to eat there again.

We finished our depressing visit to Primm at Whiskey Pete's, across the highway from the rest of the action.

Pete's has a cool Bonnie and Clyde display, including their bullet-riddled car from the 1930s. It's a neat display, and it was my favorite thing about the trip to Primm.

It was after 8 p.m. at this point and the casino had no table games open. There was a sign denoting that fact. If you want to gamble at Pete's, you play a machine. There were a handful or two of players, but again, Wednesday night is not the time to visit Primm.

Since we weren't in a hurry to get back to the Orleans that night, I regret that we didn't stop at the Gold Strike Casino on the way north. I should have stopped there just to see it, although I suspect I'd have been disappointed with the ambiance there, too.

During the drive we also passed the well respected M casino, another place I've never been to. That's much closer to Vegas than the Gold Strike, so perhaps I'll find my way there some day.